Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Bill

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for welcoming me in that way.

I wish to put on the record a few of my concerns about the Bill’s impact on the ability of inner-city local authorities to deal with particular instances of antisocial behaviour; I know that the Minister has been informed about them by the redoubtable cabinet member, Nickie Aiken, from Westminster city council. I shall raise two main areas of concern, to which I would appreciate the Minister giving consideration, and one specific amendment, which I suspect will have to be moved in another place in due course.

First, on powers of arrest and direct access to the criminal justice system, criminal injunctions are, as we all know, more effective than civil injunctions in reducing high-level antisocial behaviour, which damages communities and harms the reputation of central London. The Bill proposes to replace ASBOs on application and ASBOs on conviction with IPNAs and criminal behaviour orders—CBOs—respectively. Breaching a CBO will automatically be a criminal offence, whereas breaching an IPNA will not. Local authorities will be able to apply for an IPNA, but will not be able to apply for a CBO. Therefore, local authorities such as Westminster city council—in a former life this would have applied to the shadow Minister in his role at the London borough of Lambeth—will no longer be able to apply directly for any order or injunction on antisocial individuals or groups that would lead to criminal proceedings in the event of a breach. Instead, local authorities, housing associations, Transport for London and even police chiefs will have to apply separately for an IPNA arrest warrant. Alternatively, local authorities will have to negotiate on a case-by-case basis with the Crown Prosecution Service, which I fear will be operating with increasingly limited resources and capabilities, to place CBOs on antisocial individuals.

Mr Steve Reed: At a time when the police have had to suffer a 20% cut in funding, is it appropriate to expect them to shoulder the additional burden of £1.5 million per annum in pursuing breaches of IPNAs?

Mark Field: I certainly do not think the figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers reflect the cuts at ground floor level in the work that can be done by our local police. However, all of us appreciate that we are living in financially constrained times and will be doing so for many years to come. Where I suspect I share some of the concerns that he has expressed, not just tonight but during the passage of this Bill, is about a severe weakening of the ability of local authorities, in conjunction with the police, to deal with elements of antisocial behaviour.

Simon Hughes: I and a former leader of Lambeth council and others have dealt with these issues for a long time. I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s criticism, I understand it and it will be made from experience. I hope he will tell us what he and Westminster city council cabinet members and officers think might be the right answer. None of us has a perfect solution. We are all trying to find the best combination of tools to have in the box.

Mark Field: Naturally, I will try to be constructive. I wholly agree that the lower level nuisance and annoyance behaviour covered by an IPNA does not always warrant the threat of criminal prosecution, which perhaps happened in the past with ASBOs. Among the concerns expressed earlier was that elements of those ASBOs were not being properly enforced. We should rightly look to avoid criminalising the country’s youth wherever possible, but in practice the specific problems that we face with, for example, the very professional, aggressive begging on the streets of Westminster, literally within yards of where we are all sitting tonight, can currently be tackled only through the use of ASBOs on application. We rely heavily on the genuine threat of arrest to protect victims and to deter professional aggressive beggars, who are completely different from the 16-year-old who has got into trouble by graffitiing a bus-stop, for example. We lose that threat under the new proposals.

I want also to speak briefly about the antisocial behaviour committed by people with no fixed UK address. From the experience in Westminster city council area, but also in the City of London area that I represent, I know that tackling antisocial behaviour often involves dealing with organised aggressive begging gangs from across the EU. I fear that we will hear a lot more of this in the months to come. Some individuals travel to the UK in large numbers, with the sole intention of doing a short, but profitable begging stint before returning to their home. These people enter the UK according to their rights as EU citizens, and cannot currently be deported unless they remain in the country for longer than three months or commit a criminal offence. While they are in the UK, and particularly while they are here in central London, they have no fixed address and are completely transient in nature, with many sleeping rough.

Where we have previously dealt with such individuals through ASBOs on application, under the IPNA system the local authority will be able to apply for an arrest warrant only after a breach has occurred, by which time the individual in question may well have left the country, entirely unchallenged, to return at a future date. These people are deliberately off the grid, and we must have some legislation in place that closes this potential loophole and does not actively encourage the gaming of the system.

Stephen Phillips: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, to which I hope the Minister will respond. Might provisions in other statutes be used, under which, where a crime had been committed, people could be deported without an ASBO having to be made against them?

Mark Field: I cannot use ignorance of the law as an excuse, but my hon. and learned Friend knows considerably more about these matters than I do. He makes a relevant point, which is that we do not necessarily have to go entirely down that route. The ASBO legislation and this concurrent legislation is designed to look at the whole issue of antisocial behaviour in a constructive and codified way. The problems to which I have referred apply not simply to the City of Westminster, Southwark or inner-London boroughs. Increasingly, it will become apparent in places such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, so we should look at it fairly urgently. Without being overly negative about the potential open-door arrival of a significant number of people from Romania and Bulgaria, there is no doubt that some of the specific problems in central London in recent months have come disproportionately from groups who have already come to this country from those other EU states. We need to ensure that local authorities are given a chance to take action. As such, I strongly feel that the Bill should be amended better to reflect the circumstances that affect inner-city areas, recognise the particular challenges that are faced in the UK’s major cities and specifically enable a court to grant IPNAs with automatic powers of arrest in a wider variety of circumstances.

This matter will have to be dealt with in amendments in another place. To answer directly the question put by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), I hope that we will have a further amendment to clause 3 to add an additional subsection applicable only in major city centres or other designated areas, which varies the conditions under which a power of arrest attachment can be made to include wording such as “deliberately organised antisocial behaviour”. That will have to be dealt with in our further deliberations on the Bill.

I take this opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker, to thank you for allowing me to make a brief contribution. I accept that the Minister is aware of some of the specific concerns for Westminster, but I also very much accept that he may wish to deal with this in writing rather than going into it in great detail this evening.